A fallen Angeli

For a while she might have been defined by her mysterious death, but the Italian actress Pier Angeli — described by Paul Newman as a complex and gifted woman — deserves to be remembered for what she achieved in her 39 years.

A fallen Angeli

There is a 91-year-old woman in the south of France whose face might make you do a double prise. It might trigger a memory of one life fulfilled and another truncated. For she is the actress Marisa Pavan, sister of the fêted, flawed and funny Pier Angeli, a star who lived in fear of 40 but never made it that far. 

Refracted through the prism of twindom, paths taken and choices made are rarely more starkly contrasted. 

It was Pier — she landed on her stage name by splitting her surname in two — who made the first celluloid breakthrough. Barely five feet tall, Limoges-delicate and channelling the type of performances that made audiences wonder if she was O.K. afterwards, she made both men and women fall in love with her. 

“I look little but I am mature,” she said during her ascent. “Tragedy makes you grow up. When I was 13 I felt old inside. I saw my father killed. I saw terrible things during the war in Italy. I feel like telling all the schoolgirls who can’t wait to be sophisticated: stay simple, don’t try to grow up too fast. There is a long time for being old.” 

Not long enough, it would turn out, but what Angeli presented was a palate-cleansing counterpoint to the voluptuous European sex bombs of the day. Her connection with an audience was more honest and direct. She was taken to their hearts, whereas some reigned over more carnal body parts. 

How good was she? As a teenager she won the prestigious Nastro d’Argento award for best actress for her turn in Tomorrow Is Too Late. Naturally, Hollywood swooped. In short order she’d swapped la dolce vita for L.A., and was starring opposite Gene Kelly, in The Devil Makes Three (1952), Kirk Douglas, in The Story of Three Loves (1953), and screen newcomer Paul Newman in Silver Chalice (1954). 

The legend goes that a young actor on the verge of stardom dropped by the set to visit Newman and was immediately taken with Angeli. His name was James Dean, and so began a romance so starcrossed it made Romeo and Juliet look like one of those American couples in jorts complaining about portion sizes in Montmartre. 

Angeli was apparently the only woman for whom Dean would wear a tux, and their romance read like a tagline for a fifties celluloid bodice-ripper poster: He was the brooding rebel who craved stability; she was the good girl who yearned for danger — her mother said no but she said yes. 

And how. Elia Kazan, the director of East of Eden, would later recall the pair loudly getting it on in Dean’s dressing room. She would say, “He wanted me to love him unconditionally, but Jimmy was not able to love someone else in return... It was the troubled boy that wanted to be loved very badly. I loved Jimmy as I have loved no one else in my life, but I could not give him the enormous amount he needed. Loving Jimmy was something that could empty a person.” The picture was complicated by the fact that Dean was regarded in Hollywood as being ‘not the marrying kind’ — code for what today might be termed ‘omnisexual’ or ‘none of your goddamn business’. 

Angeli finally had enough of Dean’s vacillations and married the musician (and fellow Catholic) Vic Damone. The wedding took place on November 24, 1954, and the story goes that Dean sat outside on his bike brooding; when the bride and groom appeared, he roared off in a cloud of self-pity. Prick. 

Angeli was so much more than the sum of her relationships, though. She starred with Newman again in the 1956 hit Somebody Up There Likes Me, and a year later in the mildly scandalous The Vintage as a married woman with extracurricular yearnings. So began a streak that lasted until 1971 and was filled with more hits than misses before a gradual move into obscure European titles. Her last film was Octaman, which is summarised on IMDb thus: “A team of researchers discovers a strange mutation of man and octopus who proceeds to terrorise them.” 

Newman said: “[She was] the most beautiful Italian actress of the century. She was an extremely complex and gifted woman. It was so unfortunate that the roles she was asked to play rarely demanded what I know she had to offer.” 

Two children, two marriages and a faltering career later, she reached a place of devastating isolation and fear that the credits had rolled on her best days. We’ll never know the hows and whys behind the fact that her body was discovered in her Beverly Hills home on September 10, 1971. As with Marilyn, there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than a young corpse; it seemed a case of suicide by barbiturate overdose. 

Many friends and family bristled at this, maintaining that a tragic accident was to blame. Almost 20 years after she breathed her last, the actor John Ericson and his wife, Karen, told a different story. They said that Angeli’s sister, Pavan, had told them that Angeli had had an adverse reaction to medication prescribed by a visiting doctor, in which her tongue swelled and she choked to death. 

Whatever the truth, what should have been a eulogy for talent lost was overshadowed by tawdry speculation. We like to think that somewhere in the south of France, there is a 91-year-old who smiles every time she hears the name Pier Angeli. Because we sure as hell do. 

Read the full story in Issue 91, available now.